Thursday, September 09, 2010

Learning to Live With America in the 21st Century

Ever since September 11, 2001, I have questioned Washington's objectives and its intentions.  From the outset it seemed obvious that terrorism was a criminal matter that should have been entrusted, not entirely perhaps but primarily, to international law enforcement agencies.  In the subsequent nine years that view has been amply borne out.   Law enforcement and national security agencies have been vastly more successful at ferreting out terrorists and disrupting their activities than any military force - hands down more successful.

While a clumsy military ineptly led has done no end of good to al Qaeda by furnishing free fuel to stoke the fires of Islamic radicalism, a new form of global warfare has set in, one that threatens to do far more harm to all concerned even as it makes no promises of success and holds itself to no metrics of accountability.   This is what has become aptly known as the "Long War" or GCOIN, the war of Global Counterinsurgency.

There are a great many problems with the notion of Long War that go largely unnoticed, unmentioned.   These are issues that need a full airing not just in the United States but in every NATO ally nation.   Canadians need to discuss these questions because we, like our NATO partners, seem poised to become America's Foreign Legion in its state of permanent war (which is really nothing more than the Long War taken to its logical conclusion or lack of conclusion).

American military doctrine is something most of us rarely consider which explains why so many fundamental changes have occurred in it with so few of us noticing.   It is a saga that spans an era from the Vietnam War through to today's conflict in Afghanistan and the several wars that will certainly follow.  The questions for Canadians become should we be signing on to them and will we?

In his book Washington Rules, career army officer turned history professor Andrew Bacevich evaluates the hegemonic doctrine that governs American diplomatic and military posture.  He contends that America claims global primacy, even supremacy to international law and norms, based on certain rules founded on heartfelt assumptions and deeply ingrained beliefs.   His premise is that these rules, born out of WWII and applied to today's war on terror, essentially doom America to wage permanent war.  Bacevich depicts it as something of a whirlpool into which those who get swept up (his America and her allies) face their end.

The Washington Rules comprise four assumptions.   The first is that the world must be organized.  In the absence of organization, chaos will surely reign.  The second holds that, only the United States possesses the capacity to prescribe and enforce such a global order.  No other nation has the vision, will and wisdom required to lead.  The third rule is that America's writ includes the charge of articulating the principles that should define the international order.  Those principles are necessarily American principles, which possess universal validity.  And the fourth rule is that, a few rogues and recalcitrants aside, everyone understands and accepts this reality.  despite pro forma grumbling, the world wants the United States to lead.

These Washington Rules have shaped American foreign policy over the past six decades and have come to be taken, in the minds of most Americans, as gospel.

"To cast doubts on the principles of global presence, power projection, and interventionism, as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich did during the 2008 presidential primaries, is to mark oneself as an oddball or eccentric, either badly informed or less than fully reliable; certainly not someone suitable for holding national office."

The Washington Rules informed the policy of John Kennedy just as it did his successor, Lyndon Johnson.   This proved too much for Arkansas Democratic senator J. William Fullbright who, in 1966, wrote a book entitled The Arrogance of Power.  Power, Fullbright wrote, "tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations - to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is in its own shining image.  ...Once imbued with the idea of mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work.  The Lord, after all, would surely not choose you as His agent and then deny you the sword with which to work His will."

Do Fullbright's words sound eerily familiar?  Was it not George w. Bush who repeatedly told others, including our own Paul Martin, that he was an instrument of his god's will, that he was divinely directed?

Vietnam had a seismic impact on the Washington Rules but, like any temblor, it passed.  It did lead America's officer corps to rewrite military doctrine, banishing nation-building and counterinsurgency.  Under what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine, the military re-invented itself as a modern, technologically superior, warfighting machine.  War was to be a last resort but, once invoked, it was to be conducted quickly, with overwhelming force and brought to a prompt end.  Operation Desert Storm and the quick dispatch of Saddam's forces in Kuwait appeared to vindicate the Powell Doctrine but it quickly backfired.

At home, Desert Storm ushered in the era of long-distance killing by precision-guided munitions.   It was "bloodless war" at least for our side.   For America it wasn't even very expensive because U.S. costs were largely covered by donations from Japan, Germany and other nations.  In this way some prominent Americans, notably the neoconservatives, came to see war as a preferred alternative to diplomacy as an instrument of American foreign policy.   Henceforth the Washington Rules could be given life through the application of military force to achieve diplomatic purposes.  It is why the neocons came to hold the United Nations and other multinational organizations in such open contempt.

During the Clinton era, the efficacy of the Washington Rules was reaffirmed my Madeline Albright:

"Albright described the status to which the United States had risen as a consequence of its participation in the immense historical drama centered on Munich.  In this case the immediate context was one of recurring dustups with Saddam Hussein that punctuated the decade after Operation Desert Storm.  'If we have to use force,' Albright declared with the regard to the possibility of renewed air attacks against Iraq, 'it is because we are America.  We are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further...into the future.'"

During the Clinton years the U.S. military embarked on the RMA or Revolution in Military Affairs.  This was the ultra-high tech rebirth of American military power:

"This RMA implied a new aesthetic of war.  Past conflicts had tended to be confusing brawls; in the digital age, military operations were to become carefully choreographed performances.,  ...Ability, precision, synchronization, and speed:  In the realm of military affairs, these were now emerging as the attributes defining operational excellence.

The RMA's semiwarriors believed ...if the Pentagon acted promptly, ...something approaching permanent military dominion would all but fall into the country's lap.  the mere contemplation of this prospect generated a sense of excitement verging on the erotic."

Bacevich points out that the Washington Rules transitioned flawlessly to this new reality:

"...the Washington rules once underpinned a strategy of containment:  Washington's declared aim had been to avert a domino effect, the loss of any one country to communism presumably leading to the loss of many others.  As reconfigured in the wake of 9/11, the Washington rules provided the basis for the United States to promote its own domino effect, the forceful 'liberation' of one or two countries in the Islamic world expected to unleash a wave of change eventually rippling across the entire Greater Middle East."

And so followed the Bush Doctrine of preventive war, war of aggression masked in some humanitarian cloak.  With this the path was opened to the conquest of Iraq.

9/11 became the midwife of permanent war.   One telltale of the arrival of permanent war is our astonishing ability to turn failure into victory and nowhere is this more obvious than in Iraq:

"....the larger purposes that had ostensibly impelled the United States to invade Iraq remained unfulfilled.  U.S. forces never did find the weapons of mass destruction that had imbued the invasion with such purported urgency.  The promised documentation linking Saddam Hussein to the jihadists who plotted the 9/11 attacks never materialized.  Expectations that the liberation of Iraq would trigger a wave of democratic change across the Islamic world remained a pipe dream.  No road to peace in Jerusalem was ever discovered in downtown Baghdad.  The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq failed to cow the mullahs ruling neighboring Iran."

Yet the current narrative is that Petraeus transformed certain defeat in Iraq into victory thanks to "the surge."   What a load of nonsense!   Violence fell but that was mainly due to the completion of murderous ethnic cleansing in Baghdad.   The Sunni tribes had come to fear al Qaeda and offered to switch sides in exchange for American cash.   Muqtada al Sadr decided to wait it out in Tehran and ordered his Mahdi Army to lay low.   Baghdad kept postponing the promised referendum to decide the Kurdish claim to the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields.   Even today, nearly eight months after the last elections, no central government has emerged in Baghdad.   That's not victory.   It's a disastrously failed military campaign that left in its wake one, two, possibly three civil wars waiting to erupt.

But, in Washington, appearances trump reality.   And so, as the price of momentarily redeeming George w. Bush's Iraq legacy, the U.S. military leadership has survived its own failures:

"..with Petraeus lionized for all but single-handedly redeeming a lost cause, the surge tilted the balance of civil-military authority back in favor of the top brass.

A determination to avoid protracted conflict had been a core conviction for the generations of officers who had served in Vietnam.  According to Gen. Colin Powell, the best known member of that generation, wars should occur infrequently.  For Powell the supreme value was not warfighting but preparedness.  ...When conflict did occur, Powell favored the employment of overwhelming force to end the fighting quickly and achieve decisive results.

The generation  of officers represented by Petraeus now reached different conclusions.  They came to view war as commonplace, a quasi-permanent aspect of everyday reality.  Moreover, their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan persuaded them to see armed conflict as an open-ended enterprise.  To be a soldier was either to be serving in a war or to be recently returned.  ...Wars n o longer ended.  At best, they subsided."

Which pretty much brings us to where we are today.   Afghanistan remains "an open ended enterprise" with no end in sight.   Even as Afghanistan languishes, neighbouring (nuclear-armed) Pakistan becomes increasingly destabilized.  Iran looms ever larger as a fledgling nuclear-armed power in waiting.   The entire Middle-East/South Asia region has been transformed into a Hydra from which America, quite probably, can no longer extricate itself with honour even as it begins to wobble under the weight of its massive debts.

America today finds itself in a position similar to that of ancient Rome.   It can no longer field the armies it requires for its overseas adventures and has become increasingly hungry for foreign reserves.  It wants its allies to sign on and it's not unreasonable to expect Washington to become far more vocal in its demands over the coming decade.

What should Canada do?   How do we fit into America's plans?   How do we cope with a nation that has lapsed into permanent war; that has embraced an entirely different foreign policy, one in which diplomacy is replaced by military force?   Are we willing to toe the line, to validate the Washington Rules?

Bear in mind that, for the balance of this century at least, the world is going to become steadily less stable and more dangerous as the impacts of climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion and other scourges settle in.   The notion that we can operate independently, magically hovering above Washington's blundering ways, is a fantasy unto itself.   However if we are to forge an independent Canadian posture that remains somewhat compatible with America's now is the time we need to begin turning our minds to the problem.   This is an issue on which we cannot allow ourselves to be overtaken by events.

1 comment:

Paul Morrison said...

In 1968, Al Purdy and Mel Hurtig came out with a book called "The New Romans" - we probably didn't pay attention then, and we're not paying attention now.